I've been running around the last few days in that last-minute panic that happens before the semester starts, when the need to get ready to teach stages a pitched battle with your desire to just crawl under the covers until Christmas. I've also got a department retreat, a concert to hear, and then I'm off to Reykjavik for a festival week. After an insanely busy, sedentary year, I finally took some time off this summer to unplug my brain and travel. At this point I'm kind of sick of being away from home, but I've been looking forward to this trip for months. With space tourism in its zygote stage, an experience for bazillionaires only, going to Iceland seems to be the closest regular people can get to leaving the planet. (If only.) I absolutely can't wait.
The festival in question is a pretty good one, focusing on young Nordic composers, and rotating from country to country each year. I'm not usually one for New Music gatherings, which is not to say that they're inherently bad. At their best, they can be wonderful events where people get to trade ideas, hear something radically different from what they get in their local artistic climate, visit new places and drink until they can't see. At their worst, composers-only festivals are pretentious circle-jerks, boring and insufferable. So far, I've had pretty good luck with this one, in terms of having fun and getting good performances, with last year's festival being marred only by an untimely case of salmonella poisoning, which kind of put a crimp in my week. The location this year, though, rates pretty highly on the cool scale, so I'm anticipating a good time in any event.
I mention New Music festivals and communities in general because last week, in his gentlemanly plug of my blog, Kyle Gann had me leaning "toward the minimalist/new music side of things". Not to read anything in particular into Kyle's offhand comment, because I didn't think of it as a label at all, but until I read that I hadn't thought of myself as taking any particular stance, or even leaning toward one. If anything, I've always considered myself solidly mainstream in my tastes and aesthetic leanings. I've done some music that can be considered minimalist, or at least minimalist-influenced (I'll leave aside for the moment the debate over the term at PostClassic), playing with stasis and quiet, writing pieces where nothing ever really "happens", but damn me if I don't love a big tune and some pounding chords from time to time. All I've ever really wanted to do was write orchestra music, knowing fully well what a conservative medium it can be, aesthetically and organizationally. But I'm comfortable with that, as with the fact that my pieces end up programmed alongside standard repertoire as often as they do in New Music-type events. (Not that I get oh so many performances, but one of each type every year is still 50-50.)
I suppose the point of this ramble is that it's just funny how you see yourself, as opposed to how you may come off to others in certain contexts. Fence-sitting is something of a characteristically Canadian trait. I do my best, in my composing and in my arguments, public or private, to maintain a balance between the mainstream and New Music ends of things, or even between the various strands within New Music. Although a long string of teachers tried to get to me pick sides – populist or innovative, modernist or traditionalist – I never saw the need for it, except perhaps to advocate for good music as opposed to bad. If to one person I appear to lean toward the New Music end of things, that's great. I hope I speak well for my colleagues in the profession, and defend their right to have their innovations given a fair hearing. But I also hope that to someone else, I'm a fire-breathing defender of old-fashioned ideas and ensembles like the symphony orchestra, or an advocate for the audience's right to like the music they pay to hear. Drawing from many possible arguments enriches them, just as many aesthetics living within one person's work enriches the art. There was a poet once who said something about containing multitudes, and it strikes me as a path of right living. I may pick a side and go down fighting someday, but for now, the view from the fence is pretty good.